teleconferencing tweak

I keep thinking we really need to apply real time facial tracking to morph video conference images, so that participants actually look at each other. This should solve most of the remaining awkwardness with teleconferences.

Update 2019:

Audio jack – A love letter. Why Apple is removing audio jacks

Apple’s removal of the 3.5mm audio jack. This topic may have been done to death already, but there are a few technological and social issues people are not really considering.

By doing this, Apple is directly exposing their clients to this market of crap.

Audio Jack Loss – Social Issues


It is much more expensive to get Bluetooth headphones than wired headphones, plain and simple. From crappy headphone vs. crappy Bluetooth, to high end devices, in each case adding Bluetooth means adding batteries, charge management, and processing/communication circuitry. With cell phone costs already very high, adding a second expensive accessory seems unnecessary. This leads directly to the second issue:

Consumer choice

There are thousands or even millions of earbuds and headphones. However, there are only a  few hundred Bluetooth ones. Headphones made in the 1970s would still (with a simple jack adapter) work with a modern cell phone. However, the same cannot be said of Bluetooth headsets, with the current spec already up to V4, there is no guarantee of backwards compatibility. Therefore, there is a good chance that 10 years down the line, your nice Bluetooth headphones will not be usable anymore. This is not even considering the fact that the built-in batteries will die within 3 years, necessitating expensive replacement or DIY efforts.

Also, if I buy cheap, crappy earbuds currently, I just get tinny, scratchy sound. However, trying the same thing with Bluetooth headphones could result in dropped signals, little battery life, and a host of other quality issues. By doing this, Apple is directly exposing their clients to this market of crap.


This is more of a minor issue, but broadcasting data over the fairly insecure Bluetooth standard is not the best idea. Though even wired headphones radiate EM that could be intercepted, they are orders of magnitude quieter than Bluetooth signals. This is not a huge deal in most cases, but confidential conversations and especially financial transactions (like Square does with the audio jack currently) are at risk. Bluetooth does have some encryption and countermeasures to surveillance, but they are not really designed to be robust.

DRM integration


What happens when a torrent of user complaints come in about dropped Bluetooth signals? Apple will announce a “partner program” where companies can get “Apple Certified” Bluetooth headsets approved. This opens the door to further restrict how and when users can listen to their music and content. This also locks out vendors unwilling to pay (what has historically been) high licensing fees to use Apple’s technology. Before you think that this is just scare mongering on my part, let me remind you that Apple is no stranger to proprietary formats and locked down content; they have done this before.


Audio jacks have been used for lots of secondary devices; payment processing, children’s games, etc. This is one of the last, easy to use input/output ports on modern cellphones. Making something work with the audio jack takes a little copper wire, a magnet, and some patience. With Bluetooth, the question becomes a lot harder, and loses a lot of its education immediacy.

Secondary markets

Image result for Ipad POSEver notice how most small cafes now use an Ipad for a checkout register? This is a revolution, mostly started by Square, but now there are hundreds of companies that provide Point of Sales (POS) systems built around an Ipad. They are cheap, durable and easy to program. Most of these systems use the audio jack to input and receive data from the Ipad, because trying to get USB hosting working is (yet another) proprietary nightmare. Here is another avenue that Apple is eventually looking to cut off by removing the audio jack.

Audio Jack Loss – Technological Issues

These issues have been touched on elsewhere in this post, but the essentials are:

  • Bluetooth is more complex, and thus more expensive than simple wires.
  • Bluetooth has backwards compatibility issues, and eliminates a huge amount of very good, old headphones and speakers.
  • Wires are just more reliable than Bluetooth. (I just had Bluetooth audio issues with my car for more than 4 months. I just had to wait for an update. Without the audio jack I would have been totally stuck!)bluetooth
  • The RF spectrum is not infinitely large, with more RF devices, interference and so called “spectrum crunch” will start to play a role. I am willing to bet that if everyone on a crowded subway car tried to use Bluetooth at the same time, everyone would get audio drops and issues.
  • Batteries built into headphones means they last for a maximum of 3-4 years. After that, Li-ion batteries are toast. We will no longer have beautiful, old-school headphones passed down through families.

Audio Jack Loss – Benefits

Well, we have listed the large amount of downsides to losing the audio jack, but there must be some reason to lose it… right?

From the consumer and user standpoint, a *very slightly* thinner phone, is ultimately the only benefit. Users that claim frustration with tangled cords already had the option to use Bluetooth headsets, there is no difference.

From Apple’s standpoint, all of the negatives listed above are potential positives. Greater control over the market is the prime way any media distribution company has of wringing more profit.

apple Waka

Especially with Apple Pay competing with Square in a similar space, the incentive to physically block out their competitor is high.

For the opposite view (totally wrong of course…) see here:

Death To The 3.5mm Audio Jack, Long Live Wireless

Manholes Guesstimate – How to make more educated guesses

There is a common interview question that asks the candidate to estimate the amount of manhole covers in North America.

ontario manhole

This is a particularly nice interview question, as there are a dozen different ways to approach it, no clear right answer, and no easily searchable result online. Here I present my quick take on it, and some assumptions that could impact results. I will make every effort to avoid searching anything online (during my guess phase), and present purely my guesstimates for all values. To do this, I decided to try out a very nice online tool:

Manholes Method

To get an easily tweak-able, reasonable value, I decided to start with the population of North America. Taking the percentage of the population that lives in urban (or suburban) centers, I figure out how many people have sewer access. I then work from the other direction, and count the rough amount of sewer mainlines needed per person. Lastly, I make a wild guess (and this is the part people should take a peak at) that there are 1-5 manhole covers per mainline.


This gives me a rough answer of 22 million Manholes in North America, with reasonable lower to upper bounds of 19-46 million.

Manholes Sensitivity

The result above is very sensitive to final “Manhole Covers per Mainline” step. My reasoning to take a 1 to 5 guess is:

  • Each mainline should have at least 1 manhole to check for issues/do repairs
  • Each mainline would stretch at most 5 km, more that this and likely 2 or more mainlines would connect togeter
  • In the 5km case, a maintenance worker would not be expected to walk 2.5km underground, in full gear.
  • Ideally, the worker would have to walk a maximum of 1km. Hence, 5 covers for 5km mainline.

The other values and explanations are listed in the model. Take a look at the model here:

Manholes Guess & Check

The EPA estimates that there are about twenty million manholes in the United States [*]

If we take EPA’s 2012 estimate to be accurate, we are getting roughly 16 people per Manhole. This would give us (if we take US numbers to be fairly average for North America) about 29 million manholes in North America. This means my guess above turned out to be a fairly accurate, a 30% error!

Ideator – The business idea generator

Hearing tons of investor-speak “we are the X of Y” “We revolutionize X with technology Y” I decided to make an automatic generator for such things.

Every time you refresh this page, you should get 3 elevator pitches.
Take a few minutes to try and defend each one, should be good exercise to get the innovation juices flowing
Have fun with the generator!


$command = escapeshellcmd(‘/var/www/html/scripts/ideator/ 3 ‘);
$output = shell_exec($command);
echo $output;


Webinar on open source robotics.

Hey, I was in a webinar on open source in Robotics!

What is open source software? What are some the advantages and disadvantages? Can every robot use ROS (Robot Operating System)? These are just a few of the questions discussed in last month’s Robots and Open Source Operating Software webinar, hosted by Robotic Industries Association.

  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of open source software?
  • What is corporate America’s concerns with open source? Safety?
  • Can every robot use ROS, what are the impediments?
  • What could open source mean to industrial robotics?
  • What about open source and the profit motive in software?
  • Who saves $$ on ROS from the big picture perspective?
  • The Internet of Things and ROS/ROSi and Security?
  • What does the future look like?

Click here to watch a full recording of the webinar and learn more about open source operating software and how it’s driving the field of robotics.


Protest Phone – Part 1

This is the rough draft of the letter for the Hackaday 2016 challenge with Naim Hilal:


Go check out the project!

These ramblings are left here as reference.

Protest Phone is a series detailing the idea, design, and hopefully realization of this idea that has been in my head for months.

As we have seen in numerous recent protests and uprisings, social media and instant communication are crucial to organisation of the group. The means to quickly disseminate information to participants means larger numbers are able to arrive and organize. We have also seen governments and organisations start to realize this, and deploy counter measures, ensuring that protests are stopped before they get started, in a more PR friendly way than force.
What we purpose is a phone that is resilient to both surveillance, trust network infiltration, and jamming. It is also cheap, resilient, and can function without an energy grid. Those last two points are crucial for it to work in actual protest situations. The phone would be used in text only mode for the majority of use cases, with audio and video possible when connected to a normal network, or when priority/reputation is high enough for the user (more on this later)
Lets start with Jamming. The phone uses a mesh network topology where every message sent from each device is packetized and routed by any available route. This protects against a centralized take down of the cell infrastructure, and is somewhat resilient to jamming, as it can route around trouble areas, but it is not totally invulnerable.
To make the phone almost invulnerable to jamming, we turn to the backup RFID sneaker-net system. In heavy jamming situations, users would touch phones together with all their closest neighbors, thereby passing on messages like nodes in a network. This would take roughly 10 hops to get from end to end of a large crowd, so as long as people tap phones ~10 times a minute, communication latency would be fairly low. The power requirement of jamming near range, shielded (by the interlocking bodies of the phone) RFID communications would be so large, they are well outside the range of conventional or military hardware.
Surveillance is the easiest to explain. With a modern, public-private key architecture, encryption of all message contents should be about as secure as currently feasible. Key exchange would take place between phone users for private conversations, and shared public-private key groups would enable messaging boards, etc.
Trust network infiltration is a more difficult one to get totally right, and so far is fairly underdeveloped. The issue with public-private key exchange, and with covert networks in general, is that if an informant is place in the organisation, the group is exposed. To solve this issue, my current thoughts are to use a similar, if not identical, model to the bitcoin blockchain. Here, the blockchain would be used to authenticate that messages actually came from the user the message claims, and to accrue reputation for users.
The idea here is that when messages are passed on, the user doing the passing gains a little reputation. Positively acknowledging the receipt of a message intended for you also gives the sender some reputation. Thus, to send messages, users must be actively passing messages on, which acts as an incentive for snearker-net message passing, and generally good behavior. If the recipient sends a negative message receipt, this decreases the senders reputation, effectively preventing message spamming. This also conversely makes the most convincing voices (the organizers or leaders of a protest) the highest priority messages in the network, as they would naturally have the highest reputation. Reputation donations would also be permitted, along with paying more reputation for higher message priority, or higher bandwidth requirements.
Users would have their own, private, encrypted “phone book” containing identities that they have exchanged keys with. Exchanging info would be as simple as taping phones together, and pressing accept.
Lastly, voice messages or even images/video would need huge bandwidth and packet fragmentation. This would only be possible for users willing to pay a lot of reputation.
The network would maintain anonymous information on the amount of active modules, to help balance load and set the blockchain specifics (size, distribution, etc). New networks would be spun up for every event, and most likely dissolved afterwards.
The design is centered around the ESP8266. This chip is low cost, high bandwidth, flexible, and is fairly powerful.
The system contains:
– solar panels
– li-ion battery, battery charger and management,
– ESP8266,
– RFID transceiver + antenna,
– low power touch screen,
– speaker + mic + ADC,
– possibly low cost camera.
– Simple UI with on screen keyboard
– Encrypted top to bottom with public-private key exchange
– Bitcoin-like blockchain implementation
– mesh network + packetizing protocols
– Strudy plastic casing, mostly waterproof
– Clear back for solar cells
– About the size of a large smartphone (7″)
All designs are open source, and can be made by anyone with access to parts. Parts are specifically chosen to be hand solder-able and low cost.

What should Google do with robots?

A very interesting article here:

In my hopefully incorrect view, Google is making the same mistake that Microsoft made; it is purchasing companies only to stifle them. This has now happened with a number of promising companies, with a notable local example: BufferBox.

Hosting Providers – You get what you pay for.

A tale of two hosting providers

I had to change away from my old hosting provider, cloudatcost. They were not keeping up with their promised service, and lots of user have complained about them. Despite 4 support tickets and 5 months of complaints, service is unchanged (more on that later). Due to this, I have switched over to RamNode (, and so far the difference is night and day (or perhaps 3G and gigabit).

Apples to Oranges

Always a good idea to say more than just “it’s better”, hard numbers help make decisions in a price/performance market. A great place to start is You can download and run a standardized set of Linux tests on any server, and automatically see the results online. Below we can see that although CloudatCost provides just slightly higher benchmark performance, it suffers by 2 orders of magnitude or more in all other categories. This test was done several times, and we can see that CloudatCost is consistently under-provisioning both the network hardware and the disk resources of their instances. On one of the support tickets I had with them, they claimed a “faulty router in the network”, but no improvements were ever seen.

SVZ - Hosting Providers

Cloudpro - Hosting Providers

Raw performance stats in a snapshot are ok to start, but how do you test reliability of service? Though pingdom has recently cut back on the services they offer for free (gotta make a living), they still offer a very good way to track server outages and issues. Here we can compare historic data to see how often a service goes down, how fast it responds, etc:

cloudatcost uptime of 96%, outages every week. - Hosting Providers
cloudatcost uptime of 96%, outages a few times every week.

And here is a zoomed in view of the last few days:

Notice a Difference? - Hosting Providers
Notice a Difference?

Looking at the second graph, if you had to guess, when did I switch over providers? Fairly obvious, when the response time became smooth and fast, and the outages stopped.

One more quick note, a good online tool to hammer your website with simulated load to test for issues:

Self Regulation (sorta…)

After more than 5 months of support tickets and public complaints, nothing changed. Cloud at cost never hit advertised up times, speeds or performance, though they do have a (mostly working…) online interface, so that is nice….

Here in Canada, we have the Better Business Bureau, a group dedicated to helping customers and business establish and report on breaches of trust. I submitted a formal complaint to them about the lack of service. This is what I got back after a little while:

Complaint Case: 1329069
Business Name: Cloud at Cost

BBB has made several attempts to contact the business regarding the above referenced complaint. We regret to inform you that we have not received a response from the company. The case has been closed as will be reported as UNANSWERED.

Despite all this, cloud at cost continually run “80% off sale” “Black Friday Sale” (all emailed to my account) and get new customer sign ups.

As much as I love to support local businesses, their service at this point is essentially a scam, as they deliver a fraction of the promised service.



  • Disclaimer: I have not been paid by anyone, nor received any benefit from this info. This is just my own info gathering, done using my personal funds.

Featured on webinar in Innovative trends in robotics

Industrial robotics is entering a new era of adaptability and there’s a lot to keep up with for all engineers involved in their use, their programming, or their design. This webinar will address several critical areas that are undergoing rapid transformation, including sensing and perception, micro-robotics, and soft robotics.

I was invited to give a 15 minute presentation to Design World Online on the state on robotics.

I cover the origins of Clearpath Robotics, and our approach to the research field.

Startup city: The high-tech fever reshaping Kitchener-Waterloo – The Globe and Mail

As BlackBerry fades to a shadow of its former self, a new generation of entrepreneurs is rising out of the Waterloo region

Source: Startup city: The high-tech fever reshaping Kitchener-Waterloo – The Globe and Mail